By Rev. Joan Kessler
This weekend, St. Andrew’s College at the University of Saskatchewan held its annual convocation ceremony. St. Andrew’s is the institution that trains and forms United Church clergy for the prairie region and beyond. On Friday evening, my dear friend Martha was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Divinity degree. This honor was conferred upon her for all her years of service to this United Church of ours.
I met Martha when my family and I moved to Grande Prairie in 2006 and began attending St. Paul’s United there. Martha was a dedicated organizer of the local congregation as well as the Presbytery, Conference, and her works ultimately helped shape the United Church in northern Alberta and beyond. Martha was a passionate supporter of students to ministry and their educational processes. She was part of a leadership development team that helped ensure Conference committees had the right people in the right positions with the tools that they needed. She was capable, she followed through, and she never complained or sought the limelight.
Martha was the supervisor to the pastoral charge I served as a student. She was on the Education and Students committee to whom I liaised with during my seminary years, and because of all these things, she was the one I chose to “stole” me at my Ordination service some six years ago already. Knowing Martha just made all of us who worked alongside her want to be better leaders, to be our best selves and emulate that model known as servant leadership – to serve first and lead second.
Sad news reaches Peter and some of the others this morning. Word has been received of the untimely death of Tabitha, also known as Dorcas. She was a member of a diverse, spiritual community and had dedicated her life to good works and many acts of charity. Peter has been summoned by those who loved Tabitha to come quickly. We know this scene, when a loved one dies. Tabitha would have been surrounded by those who loved her and called her friend. The women are weeping; they tend to her body and her memory. They tell Peter of all she meant to them. They show him the tunics and other clothing that Tabitha had made while she was with them. And then the unexplainable happens. Peter sends them all out of the room and he prays. He turns to the body and says, “Tabitha, get up.” And Tabitha gets up.
I think this story does a bit of an injustice in many respects to the life of Tabitha. Is it all about a resuscitated body that comes back to life? I don’t think so. This woman worked tirelessly, she fell ill with something that she couldn’t recover from, and her body shut down. We understand this. We don’t deny that medical science has known instances of being able to resuscitate one that is clinically dead, but that’s not what this story is about. I believe it is about taking up the call to rise up, to return to life, to seek the welfare of others and offer words and deeds that are life-giving. Falling down, and getting up again is how we live our faith.
Today I am thinking of the women who raised me and nurtured me; those I looked to as an example over the many years of church involvement before and since I have entered ministry. And I am honestly not singling out women exclusively because men have figured largely in my life in these ways also. But there is something about the way women do acts of charity and service that I celebrate this morning. We gather together to roll up our sleeves side by side… to commiserate with one another while we work on whatever project is at hand: spring yard clean up, making soup in the kitchen, sorting at the thrift store, hauling plants from here to there, in and out of the building for our sale yesterday, sitting down, dog-tired and satisfied with a good day’s work that we did together.
Tabitha and her friends would have understood this and now they are grieving her death and the empty space she will leave in their group. But they go to her legacies… they say to Peter “Come and see what wonderful and generous things Tabitha did”, sharing her gifts for sewing with our community and many other things.
The work of resuscitating bodies back to life is not our work, but resurrection is. If I could write an alternative version of this story that I believe that would be most helpful to mission and ministry of our community, it would go like this: I wish that Peter, instead of putting the women out of the room, he just sat with them and stayed with them and helped them to cry. When they called for him to come quickly, they weren’t expecting a miracle, just some presence and strength, some words of comfort. Instead of the words, “Tabitha, wake up”, maybe Peter could have laid his hand upon her, anointed her with some frankincense and prayed that this servant be let go from this life in peace. Because it is this and not resuscitating bodies, that will be our work and witness. To honor, to remember, to carry forward the work of a beloved Tabitha is what we do best. And we entrust those who are dear to us and now departed to the great mystery of God’s unfailing love for this life and the life to come. A living faith doesn’t promise to take the pain away but rather offers to sit with us in it.
We are coming to life again. Resurrection is all around us! We have not been left unaffected by the experiences to our gathered life these past two years. Zoom has changed us. But the changes we have experienced do not simply lead us back where we began. We are not the same and that is a growing edge for us. We wonder about what role Zoom will play going forward. What are we ready to let go of and what benefits do we wish to retain? What will it be like to come back together? It is a resurrection story waiting to unfold. But for now, we are in this in-between, waiting kind of space.
We need to name our present realities, receive how others have experienced their own stories of the pandemic these past two years. Accepting a two-service model provide the safety and security to begin the work of moving forward to new life. I think it is also a time in our history where we consider our values and our hopes for the future. Some things have already faded away. And this will make way for life anew.
The early church community was one that was just simply there – a community of people who gathered to pray and sing, to share meals and serve others. [It was] a beautiful and simple model. The community, inspired, helped, and supported by the likes of Tabitha, wrestled with their way forward as it wondered what life would be like without her. Tabitha’s legacy is a reminder that everyday acts of love, compassion and kindness have the power to bring people to life.
For the Tabitha’s we have known and loved, for those who have inspired our leadership and our service, we give thanks on this day set apart to celebrate mothers and those who have nurtured and cared for us. May we use our gifts to benefit those who are less privileged, the marginalized, the hungry, the poor, and the grieving. May we rise up! Amen.